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Idaho Legislature: Senate quashes road plan

BOISE – The Idaho Senate killed a controversial highway bonding plan Thursday, heightening a conflict between the House and Senate and dashing plans to end the legislative session.

After hours of talks, lawmakers still were at loggerheads late Thursday, so they adjourned with plans to continue talks this morning.

“We need a fresh start,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, after House and Senate leaders failed to reach agreement. “Maybe somebody will come up with a great idea.”

House and Senate GOP leaders will gather for closed-door talks early this morning. Meanwhile, weary lawmakers postponed plans to leave Boise and head home.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I’m going to have to dig a suit out – I packed my car last night.” He noted that lawmakers originally were scheduled to adjourn their session a week ago. “We’ve been here long enough,” he said. “This is crazy to sit around like this. … $40,000 a day – that’s what it costs to have the Legislature in session, and for nothing.”

The Senate voted 23-12 against the highway bonding plan – which includes the next step in major upgrades for U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho – because the bill listed specific road projects and specific dollar amounts for each project. That’s the opposite of what Gov. Butch Otter called for at the opening of this year’s legislative session, when he said those decisions should be left to experts, not politicians.

Those specifics show $50 million less going to North Idaho projects than Idaho Transportation Department plans showed at the beginning of the legislative session, and more going to the Boise area.

North Idaho senators argued strongly against the bill, saying it takes the state down a dangerous road toward politically picking road projects and letting lawmakers direct state dollars to their districts. All North Idaho senators voted against the bill.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “The people of Idaho need to understand that this project list was developed by a small handful of legislators and a private contractor. This project list and dollar amounts were not approved by the Idaho Transportation Department and the Idaho Transportation Board.”

Keough noted that one Treasure Valley project, on state Highway 16 from Emmett to I-84, gets $17 million next year under the bill. The original plan for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE) bonding envisioned just $4 million this year for that project, and a total of just $9.7 million throughout the five-year program.

Keough asked how that project grew so much. “It did not go through ITD, it did not go through the ITD board,” she said.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, the lead sponsor of the bill, said a day earlier that the Highway 16 project got increased funds because it was ready to go, but Keough said that’s true of many projects around the state. “I can pull out five. But my project and your project weren’t represented at that table with a small group of people and a private contractor for the state,” she told the Senate.

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “It’s a trophy bill for the Treasure Valley.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s long been a proponent of bonding to fund major improvements to Idaho highways, including U.S. Highway 95, the state’s main north-south route. But Goedde said he voted for GARVEE bonding last year for the wrong reason – because North Idaho would get lots of money.

“I’m here to tell you I was wrong,” he said. This year’s bill sends more than 70 percent of the next round of bonding to the Treasure Valley, which has just 20 percent of the state-managed road miles, Goedde said. “Now that may be well and good, we may need that money – but I question whether we should be making that allocation,” he told the Senate. “We’re going to fight this battle every year before GARVEE’s done. There’ll be winners and losers on this floor. I say let’s stop it now. … I say we can wait a year, if that’s what we need to do and do it right. I would rather not spend money than do it wrong.”

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said at one point, House GOP leaders removed a Treasure Valley road project from the list because it was in a district whose senator and representatives are Democrats.

“There was one of those six projects that was removed altogether,” Cameron told the Senate. “Why? Because the senator and the representatives from that district were from the wrong political party.” He added, “It’s time for us to step back.”

Henderson said in an interview Thursday that when he was meeting with state contractors and legislative leaders over the past eight weeks to develop the GARVEE bill, one draft came back to him missing that project, on I-84 from Orchard to Isaacs Canyon. “I don’t know how it came out,” Henderson said. “I got a work plan from Washington Group that it was not there. I talked to (House Majority Caucus Chairman) Ken Roberts, and I said, ‘I don’t like that, and I’m gonna put it back in.’ I put it back in and it’s been in there since.”

Cameron said he heard the project was removed “because it’s in Elliot’s backyard.” Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, is one of two Democratic senators on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which approved the bill earlier on a split vote.

Roberts, R-Donnelly, said the project was removed because the most pressing need there was paving, which he said could have been done outside the bonding program. But, he said, “The governor’s office indicated that they would like to have the whole section put back in, so we put it back in.”

Dumping that project would have cut the overall multiyear bonding plan by $210 million, Roberts said. “It wasn’t about political maneuvering,” he said.

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said the projects listed in the bill are among those originally targeted for the GARVEE program. “We didn’t just dream ‘em up,” he said. “A small group of legislators in a room – this is how we do things, this is how we write bills.”

Some lawmakers are angry at the Idaho Transportation Department because it added a North Idaho freeway interchange and a Twin Falls bypass to the bonding plan after lawmakers adjourned last year. Both those projects have since been removed from the plan.